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What the heck are science journalists for?

Posted By Joanne Nova On October 19, 2010 @ 1:55 am In AGW socio-political,Global Warming,Media-matters,Science Communication | Comments Disabled

From The Skeptics Handbook II

Last week a science journalist at The Guardian wrote the best summary I have ever seen of the state of the profession known as “science communication”. Only, he thought it was a spoof. Well, it is — and it’s satirically funny at the same time as being an unwittingly cutting commentary. (We laugh at the formulaic approach because we know it’s so true, and then we bang our heads on the wall…).

Science journalists who churn out mindless ritual productions are effectively being PR and marketing writers. Dangerously, though, they are dressed as “investigative” journalists. The public assumes they are checking that their stories don’t break laws of logic and reason, that they are supported by evidence, and that they are providing the whole story. Their PR is the most powerful advertising there is, it’s not just free, it’s a third party endorsement.

Ironically, the same journalists probably don’t realize how important they are. They think they’re there for a fluffy feelgood reasons: to help promote science, raise public awareness, and attract school leavers into careers in science. They don’t realize that their most important role is to protect science itself and be guardians of logic and reason in a world that isn’t so far from the stone age. Science Communicators ought to have been acting as back up auditors on science itself — as a check and balance to notify the world of systemic failures: corruption and bias in funding, manipulation in peer review, lost or withheld evidence. Journalists could have been the last official backstop against science being exploited, but instead of exposing the corruption, they covered for it.

Meanwhile the largest scam in modern science is running amok under his nose…

When the news-mag journos wonder why blogs are taking over, it’s because they left a vacuum. The bloggers came to fill it.

Science journalists could have saved the world billions of dollars of money that were wasted following a dead end. That’s money that could have been put towards finding a cure for multiply resistant superbugs, creating better long range flood and storm forecasts, or just saving the hairy nosed wombat.

Rubber-stamping-PR-writers become unwitting tools of tyrants

Imagine if parts of the government wanted to use the good name of science to justify demands for money or power. The government, having buckets of money, could pay for lots of scientists to do lots of fairly irrelevant, minor, repetitive or speculative research (modeling comes to mind). Then a steady stream of press releases would spring forth, leading to a similarly steady stream of  cut n’ paste PR, dressed as “reporting”.

Some smart sharks in the government twigged that through this round-about-method with obedient “journalists” they could buy a conduit to get their favorite message repeated ad hoc, ad nauseum and ad infinitum. If the government wants a “scientific” message to back up their scare campaign and ask for more public money, the starting point is to set up an institute to “report on a problem”. Obviously, no institute thus created would ever actually declare “there’s no problem” (and “we should all go home”). It becomes a self fulfilling cycle with journos being the o-so-helpful tools to keep it running.

Swatting flies in Malaria-Lagoon

Martin Robbins writes a spoof of all his big fears of science communication: it’s predictable, nobody uses links much, and the BBC puts in too many “scare quotes”.

Journalists don’t realize that their most important role is to protect science itself and be guardians of logic and reason

Meanwhile the largest scam in modern science is running amok under his nose: scientists are losing entire global data sets that billions of dollars depends on, they’re hiding their results, dodging FOI’s, resorting to cherry picking a single tree to get the graph they want, and even fudging color scales in rank desperation, breaking basic laws of reason, spitting insults and threats at their critics, and basically cheating. Thousands of retired volunteer scientists including professors and Nobel Prize winners, are jumping up and down in protest at the death of scientific principles, honor, reason, and not to mention the craven loss of plain good manners and any hint of ethics.

Martin explained why he wrote the spoof. He contemplates whether journalists should be utterly BBC-impartial, and counters that a scientist ought to be capable of venturing an opinion.

Ultimately, though, if all you’re doing is repeating press releases, and not providing your own insight, analysis or criticism, then what exactly is the point of paying you? What are you for?

Exactly. Except the BBC definition of impartial climate coverage is to report both warmists and their critics,  ah… the uberwarmists.

I say the “impartial” vs “opinionated” is a false dichotomy

The best science commentators do both and simultaneously. They’re impartial in the sense that they will report everything of consequence whether it agrees with their pet theory or not, and they’re opinionated in the sense that they help the world if they explain why this or that information could be misleading, or meaningful and they give us their reasons. (And it’s their reasoning that matters, not their opinion.) But just doing that does not make them great necessarily.

The Greats, like Nigel Calder, know the laws of logic and reason, and never hide behind the pathetic drivelling excuse of authority (ie “consensus”). They never say something is right because 97% of the employees of some branch of government-funded monopoly science says so. (Give me the evidence.) They don’t quote political reports as if they are the Word Of God.

They seek out and cultivate connections and information from the scientists doing the most cutting edge informative work, even if they are not “popular” and are not churning out fashionable results.

In short, the best journalists are on a mission to seek knowledge and pursue it wherever the evidence takes them, and they have the gift of being able to share the answers, the meaning, and the uncertainties.

(I quite enjoyed the funny side of this too I might add. It’s obvious it was written by someone who knows his stuff. And actually, I agree with a lot of what he says in his reasons.)

This is a news website article about a scientific paper

First I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of “scare quotes” to ensure that it’s clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research “challenges”.

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like “the scientists say” to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

In this paragraph I will state in which journal the research will be published. I won’t provide a link because either a) the concept of adding links to web pages is alien to the editors, b) I can’t be bothered, or c) the journal inexplicably set the embargo on the press release to expire before the paper was actually published.

I will preface them with “it is believed” or “scientists think” to avoid giving the impression of passing any sort of personal judgement on even the most inane facts.

This paragraph will explain that while some scientists believe one thing to be true, other people believe another, different thing to be true.

[Note from Jo, except of course in Climate science, where there are no institutions paid to "believe a different thing", and none of the journo's are brave enough to interview a scientist called a "denier" lest they get called that too. The phrase bk bk bk comes to mind.]

In this paragraph I will provide balance with a quote from another scientist in the field. Since I picked their name at random from a Google search, and since the research probably hasn’t even been published yet for them to see it, their response to my e-mail will be bland and non-committal.

“The research is useful”, they will say, “and gives us new information. However, we need more research before we can say if the conclusions are correct, so I would advise caution for now.”

Read more at The Guardian

Where are the girls?

Martin also asked where all the science blogging girls were and has assembled quite a nice list. Perhaps someone might let him know about Jennifer Marohasy, Judith Curry, Donna LaFramboise, Maggie Thauersköld Crusell’s Skeptic Blog and yours truly. I trust he’ll welcome the additions. And just in case he’s wondering, when Richard Black from the BBC asked why there weren’t many female climate bloggers I explained exactly why with: “Why don’t women want to face the global bullies? I can’t imagine”.

And if you’re wondering, do I call myself a science journalist? No. Call me a science commentator, even a science polemicist. People who debate whether they should “balance” a science article are missing the point.

“Opinions” be damned. Don’t aim for balance, aim for reason and evidence.

H/t to the commenter who gave me the link for this article…  I just wish I could find that comment again so I could thank you properly. I’m grateful!  :-)

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